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The Scarecrows of the Future are Here

Published Wednesday Nov 1, 2023

Author Scott Merrill

A Casella scarecrow robot, designed to keep wildlife out of landfills. (Courtesy of Montagne Powers)

There is no shortage of scarecrows in NH in October adorning Main Streets, corn mazes and people’s homes. But their original intent—keeping critters away from crops—still exists. It’s just that those working scarecrows have become much more high-tech, and scarier, shooting laser beams and emitting sounds from a propane cannon as loud as a gunshot. At least that’s what Plymouth State University robotics students are aiming for in their work to repair and upgrade a pair of robots belonging to Casella Waste Systems, which uses robotic scarecrows to ward off wildlife at their Bethlehem landfill.

The work began this past spring through PSU’s Industrial Robotics course with students working on a multi-semester project to bring new life to Casella’s already existing robots. The course and project are part of PSU’s robotics lab, created through a $1 million federal grant in 2022 and enabling the university’s first-in-the-state robotics degree program, says Bret Kulakovich, an adjunct faculty member in robotics who oversees the makerspace and robotics lab.

Casella’s Director of Communications, Jeff Weld, says wildlife poses problems for people working at the landfill and offsite. “We don’t want the animals picking at the trash and pulling it offsite,” he says, adding while the robots play a role in safely mitigating the problem, maintaining the technology has been a challenge.

The PSU program with Casella was created with the hope of bringing the company’s fleet of robots, many of which were over 10 years old and have fallen into general disrepair, back into peak working order. The solar-powered, stationary robots detect the movement of wildlife and scare or agitate them into leaving.

Kulakovich says the robots, named Cassie and Wilson, are equipped with cameras and motion sensors in a head that swivels 180 degrees, loudspeakers for emitting predator noises, propane-fueled air cannons for scaring large mammals and powerful lasers that create a strobing, dazzling effect.

“We’re starting to delve into the programming they already have, and we’re going to try to replicate or expand upon it or improve it where we can,” says Jake Reichenthal, who is working on the project and is one of 18 robotics majors at PSU.

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